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The Elbow is the Key to Control

Overwhelmingly, the most common uses of force by officers involve low levels of force. Individuals informed and undergoing the process of being under arrest, will often want to protest their innocence or delay their arrest. The suspect is generally not organized in his resistance in the early stages—he doesn’t have a plan…yet. The suspect is simply buying time until he figures out what he is going to do with this new development of being arrested. The majority of force incidents involve the need to stabilize and manipulate the subject’s arm(s) until he can be safely secured by handcuffs. This must be done quickly before he becomes violent or develops a plan of attack. The longer the subject physically resists arrest, the more likely that one or both of you will be injured before the incident is concluded. Most officers have been taught upper limb control techniques that generally require the officer to manipulate and concentrate on a subject’s wrist. Wristlocks and twists have been offered as the means for controlling a subject who is resisting or who is “pre-resistive.” The theory is that the pain caused by the wristlock will be so overwhelming that the person will be compelled to comply. It is the experience of most officers that wrist locks work very well on compliant individuals. At the same time, there is no one who has not had a suspect walk out of his wrist control technique. These techniques do not work well when applied by most officers in the field against unwilling subjects who are uninjured. While wristlock advocates will counter that these techniques work well if they are correctly applied, that is the crux of the problem. These techniques are skill intensive and require multiple joint stress points for success. For the wrist to be secure for pain compliance, the elbow must be equally immobilized. Failing to lock in the elbow allows the person to literally walk out of a wristlock without fear of injury. Worse, it allows a trained or simply hostile suspect the opportunity to attack an officer without warning and well within an officer’s human performance limitations. Another fundamental problem is the idea of pain compliance. The majority of people you come into contact with and use force upon have diminished pain reception—they are under the influence of some drug or alcohol. If your safety requires the individual to be in pain, and their ability to feel pain is decreased by 20 to 50%, how much is your safety enhanced by this pain compliance control method? There is another option. The Universal Defense Systems teaches that instead of focusing on pain compliance with the wrist, the focus should be immobilizing the elbow. Compliance is a choice, and every suspect makes the choice to either comply or to resist. In fact, in any action involving the arm, whether it is forcefully immobilizing the arm, stabilizing the arm while forcefully moving it into cuffing position, or performing a Universal Elbow Takedown, it is the elbow, not the wrist, that is the key. By taking hold of and stressing elbow, the suspect is given a choice: go along with the program, or be injured to some greater or lesser degree. Elbow Escort Position The key to controlling the arm is the elbow. Therefore, the more the elbow is stressed, the more likely the suspect will choose to comply. Additionally, the closer the officer is to the suspect’s body, the less likely it is that the suspect will be able to surprise and injure the officer. Here is how the escort position is achieved. Suspect and officer face the same direction. The officer is immediately to one side and slightly behind the suspect. Taking the suspect’s arm, one of the officer’s hands (ideally the one closest to the suspect’s body) pulls the biceps to the officer’s chest. The other hand takes the wrist, and pulls it toward the officer’s body. The suspect’s arm is now diagonally across the officer’s body. The officer pushes his rib cage forward, through the elbow. The focus of all upper limb control efforts is the elbow of the straight arm. The intent is to stress the elbow through a combination of pulling on both the upper arm and the wrist, forcing the elbow to hyperextend. This partially immobilizes the arm. In this position, any suspect defensive movement will generally provide the officer with enough perception-response time to react positively to any resistance. This escort position is useful for a number of reasons. The elbow is the focal point, better focusing the officer’s attention where it should be: a pain compliance component to the escort position. A method of universal takedown should the suspect resist is Universal Rule of Defense number three—take all struggling suspects to the ground immediately. This offers some protection from sudden and unexpected attack. The suspect spinning in either direction will result in some injury level to the elbow. If the subject is too drunk, drugged, deranged, or is simply highly motivated, he might accept an injury to the elbow in order to strike the officer. This possible elbow injury decreases the suspect’s combat efficiency, making it more likely to take him safely into custody. As any officer can attest, the majority of subjects who resist arrest do so with muscular effort and generally attempt to argue or plead their way out of being taken into custody. Though they may superficially comply, any perceived opening may create a renewed resistance effort. It is essential to maintain some type of immobilization effort on the arm until handcuffing is completed. Traditionally, wrist control efforts or muscular strength were all that were available to officers. This creates a needless struggle that may require additional force efforts by the average officer. This can often be remedied by focusing on restraining the elbow. From the Elbow Escort Position, the subject’s arm can more easily be moved to the small of his back for handcuffing by maintaining the so-called “body parts to body mass” position of the subject’s elbow. Using the officer’s body to shove the elbow to the subject’s back allows the wrists to be more easily manipulated into handcuffs. Universal Elbow Takedown The Universal Elbow Takedown is so named because the average officer can universally take any sized subject to the ground using the Universal Principles of Defense. There is no need for myriad complicated techniques or memorizing intricate movements. It involves gross-motor functions only. All takedowns are opportunistic in nature—they either present themselves or are engineered…you cannot force a takedown unless you have overwhelming strength or vastly superior skills. Both takedowns, to the front and to the rear, involve the same Universal Principles of Defense. They are: 1) body parts to body mass—press the elbow are hard as possible into your chest or torso; 2) step to angles and circles—move the elbow by stepping in a circular motion, and using your body weight, not strength. (Just “open the gate.” The elbow of the subject is moved in the direction you want his body to go); 3) pull the rope—the arm is like a rope that is attached to a small log. Pushing the rope toward the log will not affect the log. Only by pulling the rope will the log move. The human arm, attached to the torso is the rope. Unless there is a specific purpose to be achieved, the torso is greatly affected by pulling on the arm, rather than pushing it. If you are pressing an arm against your body, all movement that results in pulling that arm will probably work better than pushing it. Front Universal Elbow Takedown From the elbow escort position, the subject will be placed forward, face down to the ground. Pressing the elbow of the straight arm against your body, step back and away in a circle as if opening a heavy gate, pulling the suspect’s arm (elbow). The suspect’s elbow is taken to the ground—where the elbow goes, the body follows. While similar to a traditional “bar arm takedown,” the stressing of the elbow by continuously pressing it against the officer’s body throughout the takedown, combined with the movement of the body down and away, will create a more easily achieved takedown with far fewer skill requirements than the traditionally taught method. Rear Universal Elbow Takedown From the elbow escort position, the subject will be taken down to the rear. Generally the suspect will land on his buttocks, with his momentum often rolling him to a prone position. Pressing the elbow of the straight or bent arm into the officer’s torso, step back and away, pulling the suspect’s elbow, as if opening a heavy gate—use your body weight instead of strength. The elbow is taken to the ground. Some will know this as an “arm-drag” takedown. The difference between the two is that by pressing the elbow into the officer’s body, it is the officer’s body weight that initiates the takedown, rather than the coordination of a series of weight changes and muscular efforts resulting in the takedown. Upper limb restraints have historically focused on the wrist of the suspect. It was (and, unfortunately, continues to be) taught that by stressing the wrist properly, that compliance is assured. The real world shows us that extremely few officers have not had a subject simply walk out of their wrist restraint at will, and that wrist restraints work on those individuals who are already compliant (the latest NIJ study shows over 99.22% of all suspects comply and do not physically resist). If an officer has any hope of immobilizing a suspect’s arm, it is the elbow that must be the focus. It is only by creating a situation where the offender chooses to either comply or to injure his elbow, perhaps catastrophically, that any real benefit can be obtained in attempting to restrain an arm. The elbow escort position, with the subject’s elbow pinned against the officer’s torso with the upper arm and wrist pulled tight adheres to the Universal Principle of Defense, body parts to body mass, and is therefore valid in any situation where this is reasonable. This provides choices for everyone involved. The suspect makes the choice between compliance and injury. From this position, the ability to move suddenly to injure the officer is dramatically decreased. This delay provides an “early warning system,” giving the officer time to react. The officer can make the decision leave the subject standing and force the arm to the subject’s rear utilizing body weight rather than simple muscular strength, permitting the wrist to be handcuffed. If it is reasonable to put the offender to the ground, the universal elbow takedown, either to the front or to the rear, is instantly available and easily achieved by the average or small officer. The elbow is the key to controlling the arm. While the wrist may be painfully manipulated, it generally does not threaten the integrity of the subject’s structure (joints and bones) sufficiently to provide an either/or choice: either comply, however reluctantly, or suffer injury. Pressing the suspect’s elbow into the officer’s body generally allows the officer to assume more than nominal control over the limb. Forget the wrist. Take possession of that elbow if you want to immobilize the arm. It’ll be more difficult to walk out of, and, if the subject attempts to injure you, will probably result in varying degrees of injury to his elbow. Focusing on the elbow in any suspect restraint activity will pay off in a better immobilization of the subject’s arm and safer arrests for all concerned. George T. Williams is a professional Police Training Specialist, a certified Police Master Trainer, and is currently the Director of Training for Cutting Edge Training in Bellingham, WA. He may be reached at (360) 671-2007, or at

Published in Tactical Response, Jan/Feb 2005

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